Supporting Your Elderly Neighbors, Friends and Family While Social Distancing
As human beings, we need to have a purpose, to understand what helps us get out of bed in the morning. When we are younger and middle aged, that drive may come from work or interactions with our children who are still at home. As we age, we retire, and our children move on and leave the nest. Oftentimes, we are at home – either alone or with our spouses or partners.
Many elderly individuals go on to pursue their interests and purpose within social and community venues – whether that is through their houses of worship, senior centers, community centers or YMCAs, and other avenues where they can be social, active and volunteer their time.
Social distancing stops all of this in its tracks.
We know that social interaction is a key factor in mood and mental health. Loneliness – or the feeling of being separate and not engaged with others – can lead to increased depression. We also know that there are additional factors in maintaining a healthy lifestyle for the elderly such as regular physical exercise and nutrition, which are often found within community settings.
When asked if we should worry about the elderly, I would not say worry, but I would ask that you be aware. When you are aware, you can identify the areas where you can help.
Hitting the elderly hard
Social distancing creates issues for all of us, but many of these things hit our elders especially hard:
- Increased isolation – if you are already living alone, not having access to your extended family, family activities, community or faith-based organizations is especially difficult.
- Loss of routine – when you lose your sense of structure, a lot starts to slip through the cracks. One day can feel like it melts into the next. Your sleep schedule can be disturbed, your eating habits change, ultimately having a negative impact on self-care. For those elderly who also are managing cognitive decline, this lack of structure can become even more disorienting.
- Increased use of technology – many elders may not be familiar with using computers or phones for video chatting. They may be uncomfortable with these tools, leading to avoidance.
- Being a caretaker – the role of a caretaker always has its challenges, more so if you are elderly. Even so, you often have support from other family or friends who can help, or a visiting home care professional. With social distancing this has often been eliminated leading many to feel overwhelmed and trapped.
Social distancing can create a negative equation
Physical distance combined with difficulties in modern technology plus fear equals an increase in isolation, depression, loneliness.
What can you do to help?
- Don’t wait to be asked. Make a phone call – and do so on a regular basis. Check in on them. Let them know that you are going to the grocery store and you would like to pick up some food and supplies for them. What would they like? Bring over a nutritious meal, and one in which there might be leftovers for the next day. Making masks? Bring a few over. See if they are going out for exercise. Ask if they need assistance in taking care of their lawn, taking their pet to the vet, getting medications. Don’t wait to be asked.
- Help with their technology. Do they have a computer but not know how to use it? Walk them through the steps so that they can use social media, and videostream to keep up with their loved ones. In addition, houses of worship and social communities are now posting their services online, so that their members can be part of the service. Help your neighbor to be able to have access to that.
- Make sure that they are keeping their health care provider appointments. Having to do this through telephone or video may be very unfamiliar to them, and they may want to wait until they can see their provider, face to face. That might not be the best choice for their health.
- Structure. Do something to provide some structure like calling at a certain time every day, or doing errands on a set day of the week
Take a small step to help – thinking about the pandemic is overwhelming and feels daunting. Social distancing is hard. But we can take small steps to help each other. If you are reading this and have an elderly family member, neighbor, or friend, tell them: please tell me how I can help you.
My advice to you is the same advice you can share with your elders: stay connected to the people and activities that feed your soul.
About the Author:
Marcia Liss, PhD
Dr. Marcia Liss is a psychologist with Lifespan Physician Group Psychiatry and Behavioral Health. She specializes in rehabilitation psychology, working with individuals and couples who are facing adjustment to injury, illness and disability, as well as transitions in life stages, aging, depression, and anxiety.
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